Buzz Records’ No Fest puts local music first

As Toronto’s mega-festivals jostle for June weekend domination, Buzz Records offers an alternative.

June 16, 2016

Photo: Denholm Whale

Buzz Records‘ first annual No Fest is billed as an alternative to large outdoor stages, corporate overlords, and eye chart posters of international stars. While it’s not quite an outright rejection on the level of the Nihilist Spasm Band’s No Music Festival, this two-day event is focused on local artists (friends and family from the Buzz roster), accessible prices (a free day show plus passes for only $20), and intentions to “keep the music industry element on the fringes.”

These streetwise ambitions come from the label’s co-founder, Smiling Buddha booker, and No Fest mastermind Denholm Whale. As a member of the bands Odonis Odonis and Peeling, he has seen both sides of the biz. When we chat on the phone, Whale brazenly jokes about what he hopes to do differently than larger festivals, how he takes inspirations from Not Dead Yet and the Ottawa all-ages community, then casually drops terms like “build a brand.”

This mix of punk hustle and professionalism has cross-pollinated Buzz Records since day one. While the fuzzy rock loving label began as a DIY show series based out of a Chinatown garage, it has since grown into an internationally successful organization with offshoots for PR (Hive Mind) and booking (Beeswax). This entrepreneurial spirit may be credited to co-founder Ian Chai, a lawyer who previously worked for Arts & Crafts, but it comes together with the tireless work of its artists and staff.

Despite their successes, Buzz (and No Fest by extension) continue to bolster the local scene. Friday, June 17th and Saturday, June 18th will see Toronto artists like Fake Palms, Casper Skulls, and Nailbiter joined by Seattle’s Chastity Belt and Northampton’s Speedy Ortiz. A free day show in the front room of The Garrison and two evening blow-outs in the back room will close out with an after party at Chai’s apartment.

Read on for an interview with the outspoken Whale about No Fest’s origins, aspirations, and long-term goals.

AUX: What is the concept of No Fest?

Denholm Whale: We’ve always wanted to do a festival, but never pulled the trigger. For the past five years, we’ve worked with festivals like NXNE. From what I understood earlier this year, NXNE wasn’t really going to happen because all of the people I knew there had left. At that time, we just decided to do our own thing.

The idea – which is something we actually really appreciated about festivals like NXNE – is the opportunity to build an event putting local music first, plus the obvious addition of a few international acts. It’s sort of like buying groceries: Keep it local and work towards keeping this environment sustained.

That’s what I appreciated about NXNE in past years and what [former programmer] Cheryl [MacIver] did last year. Our emphasis while working with festivals has been building events focusing on talent around us. With festivals like CMW, I find that when you don’t know a band on the bill, your immediate gut reaction is that it’s going to be bad. I’d like it to be the opposite. I want people to think a band they don’t know is going to be good because it’s part of our festival.

The name ‘No Fest’ makes it sound like a rejection or an anti-festival. Are you actively fighting against anything?

When the general music consumer thinks about festivals, they think Wayhome or Coachella, huge headliners, and $12 hot dogs. We didn’t want to build a brand that fit into that, so we decided to be really blunt.

So you’re trying to make No Fest more like what NXNE was years ago with smaller venue shows?

It’s not necessarily what NXNE was, it’s what they had. They had that section of what they were doing because of the programmers working there. That’s what made me really excited about music when I moved here, so we wanted to bring that back.

Do you have any problems with the recent changes to NXNE?

Not really, it’s just a whole other weight class. It seems like they didn’t or couldn’t make an effort to take on the aspect of what they were doing before. Michael Hollett, the guy who’s running NXNE now, doesn’t seem to have the same focus. I’m not going to hate somebody for their decisions, but I want to have another option for local music. Maybe they’ll go back to that or hire someone who can bring it back, but this year doesn’t seem to include it.

The NXNE ‘Club Land’ shows were an interesting addition after they had already announced a new focus on video games and large outdoor shows in the Port Lands.

Collective Concerts helped them out with that. It seems like NXNE threw their name on a number of shows that were already set up around that time and added them as their ‘Club Land’ events. That’s fine, but I had five days of holds from them [at the Smiling Buddha] for ‘Club Land’ shows and they dropped them less than a month away. It’s like, ‘Thanks, you almost fucked over a venue for an entire week.’

Things like that make me feel like they had a lot of stuff to take on and couldn’t handle it, so they did what they could. I understand that, but I also miss the other side of NXNE.

No Fest has been described as “keeping the music industry element on the fringes.” What does that mean?

We don’t have any plans to turn this into an industry event, beyond the occasional sponsorship to help pay artists. I don’t ever see this being like M For Montreal, with high-end agents from huge labels coming to drink free cocktails and jerk each other off.

Our focus is local music and good times. Come see good bands in your backyard that you don’t really pay attention to on a regular basis.

You’ve also mentioned that you’re trying to keep it cheap. If you’re open to sponsors coming on board, is there an emphasis to pay local artists fairly?

Definitely. One of the first evil truths I learned when I moved here was playing shows with promoters and getting paid as low as $20. Then when I started putting on my own shows I learned there was some room and another way to conceptualize it to pay artists more.

It’s a fine balance because events are expensive, and as much as you want to pay an artist what would actually be worth their time and effort, it’s dependent on what they can bring to a festival scenario. I want it to be cheap and accessible for people who want to see it, and I also want to avoid wasting artists’ time and paying them nothing. Those are very important factors for the planning and organization of this and any events I do.

Sponsorship is a weird beast that’s slowly becoming a necessary part of music. I think there’s a way to make it work for everybody, but there’s always going to be someone saying ‘You’re getting sponsors? What the fuck is wrong with you?’ But people need to get paid and these things need to be affordable.

It’s really unfortunate when a sponsor comes on board for an event and artists still aren’t able to get paid.

That’s when I wonder where the transparency is. We did a NXNE showcase last year with HEALTH, and it ended up being a Budweiser show. I guess they maybe paid for the headliner, but I’m not sure how the money works and I think it’s case-by-case with festivals. Sometimes they just throw it all into one pot, or overpay the headliners. The locals take the brunt of the financial end under the guise of playing with a great band.

I get the exposure argument, but there’s also basic humanity and respect for someone’s work. If you’re bringing in Budweiser and Samsung or whatever, there’s obviously a lot of money involved. There should be an option to not pay the artists $100 and a festival pass when they’re playing a Budweiser show. Those are the kinds of things I’m interested in changing.

Do the artists on Buzz even need “exposure” at this point?

I think a lot of bands in this city in a lot of small factions of the music community are figuring out how to properly push themselves. Again, that speaks to the goal of our festival. Everybody’s working and playing in cool bands. They’re not being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to play Coachella, but they’re all really good and doing their own thing, so we want to make a hub for that.

What can people look forward to at this year’s inaugural event?

As far as the actual structure, it’s a couple of club shows with a free day party and a fun after party. That’s a throwback to what we used to do with our garage shows and more DIY events. It’s literally a big hang and a chance to see a lot of great music over two days for $20. You’re gonna see three shows and possibly four if you can get into the after party in an apartment. I would go.

Are any of the shows all-ages accessible?

No, unfortunately. In the future I want to have a huge all-ages portion. Working at the Buddha, we’ve found a structure to make all-ages events work, and I’m starting to see there are a ton of kids here. Looking at what Debaser and Pressed Café have done in Ottawa, there’s an amazing all-ages community there, and there needs to be a way to integrate it here. I’m sure it’s there but I don’t think it permeates enough.

People like Greg Benedetto [Not Dead Yet] and places like Faith/Void are amazing, but there needs to be more, and maybe not just in a punk and hardcore community.

I’m excited to hear you mention Ottawa. From what I’ve experienced, it might be the most active all-ages community in the country right now.

The local community there seems to be driven by kids under 19, which is awesome. Hopefully next year we can have a venue to do an all-ages portion for kids who aren’t regularly included in all of this.

What are your long-term goals for No Fest?

I like the ‘Club Lands’ model, but I want to make it into more of a village. It would include a number of venues in a pretty small geographical area that are all within a few minutes walking distance of each other. That would be set up for a few days so we can include a ton more bands and all-ages events.

I’m thinking more about the model of how it would be laid out, because the bands will always be there and there will always be a community for it. Finding the right location is always difficult in this city because of how zoning works. I also don’t want the sponsors to be huge conglomerates, and want to focus on bringing in local businesses to help sustain it.

Of course that’s all in the future, and my head’s already spinning about this year. I’ll start planning for next year the week it’s over.

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